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Can a Weighted Blanket Help You Sleep?

One troubled sleeper puts it to the test.

Woman sits in bed with weighted blanket.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Wesley Kabakjian
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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The only thing worse than not being able to fall asleep is stressing out that you can't fall asleep.

It's a feeling I've come to know well lately. While I don’t have chronic trouble falling and staying asleep (there are those precious nights when I fall asleep faster than a sunbathing sloth), every few weeks I’ll have a night where something keeps me up—whether it’s a conversation with a co-worker that could’ve gone better or a deadline I’m not sure I’ll be able to meet.

Then before you know it, it's 7am and I've had the conversation in question several different ways in my head and mentally wrote eight potential intros to my morning assignment, all at the expense of a night's sleep.

To find a solution to the problem, I turned to the internet for answers—which is how I eventually found myself pulling a 20-pound weighted blanket over my body in hopes of getting a better night’s sleep. 

Having trouble falling (and staying) asleep? You’re not alone

Apparently, I'm not the only one who gets caught in this vicious cycle. Having trouble falling (and staying) asleep is a fairly common problem, one that Dr. Saul Rothenberg, licensed psychologist and diplomate at the American Board of Sleep Medicine, sees often in his practice at Northwell Health's Sleep Center.

"Difficulty sleeping is arguably the most common health problem in the world," he says. Just how common are we talking? According to Dr. Rothenberg, 30% to 40% of the general adult population has suffered from short-term insomnia, defined as difficulty falling asleep for periods of time lasting less than three months. 

While short-term sleep disruption (like mine) has the potential to turn into a more long-term problem, Dr. Rothenberg explains that most of the time, the brain is able to self-correct to catch up on that sleep deficit. "If you don't think too much about it, the brain tends to return to the normal patterns of sleep,” Dr. Rothenberg says. “But if you continue to worry about having trouble sleeping, it can turn into a long-term pattern.”

Can a weighted blanket help with sleep?

I was averaging at least one sleepless night per week. I'd tried just about everything to fix this problem, from limiting screen time before bed to doing meditation. I even tried counting sheep.

None of it worked.

Meanwhile, I keep hearing people rave about weighted blankets, which are blankets filled with evenly dispersed glass beads or poly pellets (weighted stuffing material made from polypropylene) that are supposed to give you a feeling of being tucked in that’s calming to the body. The companies that sell weighted blankets tout benefits including reduced anxiety, falling asleep faster, staying asleep longer and waking up less often during the night.

It’s so important to get enough sleep. Sleeping seven to eight hours per night correlates with health benefits like having a stronger immune system, lower risk of heart disease, reduced stress levels, improved mood, and improved cognitive function. So if you’re having consistent trouble getting enough shut eye, you’re at risk of not performing well at work, coming off as cranky to your co-workers, and getting sick.

How could sleeping with a heavy blanket improve my sleep and give me all those health benefits? The idea has to do with the science of deep pressure touch (DTP), where gentle pressure is applied to the body in order to increase serotonin (that feel-good chemical in our bodies). If you've ever felt relaxed after getting a massage or a hug, it’s a similar concept. There’s even research behind it: One study found that deep pressure touch helped college students with anxiety reach a higher degree of subjective relaxation and suggested this method might be beneficial for calming autistic children.

I like to do my research before committing to trying something new—and while the logical conclusion would be that weighted blankets, like DTP, would help with anxiety, there isn’t much evidence that weighted blankets specifically help with this. "I am aware of only two studies examining weighted blankets and sleep, both in children and adolescents. Neither study showed any objective change in sleep, but parents thought there was improvement and tended to like the weighted blankets," Dr. Rothenberg says.

Some people may get a sleep benefit out of weighted blankets, but they’re not a solution for everyone, says Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, sleep psychologist and author of Become Your Child's Sleep Coach. She agrees that weighted blankets can be beneficial—but aren't a one-size-fits-all approach to sleep improvement.

"Many people like the feeling of pressure against their body and find this pressure relaxing and calming.” But there are also some cons. "They can be heavy and hot, and expensive," she says.

She wasn't kidding about that last one. Weighted blankets can cost upward of 200 bucks, depending on what brand you decide to go with. After shopping around, I came across a weighted blanket startup that had more affordable options.

Before pulling out my credit card, I asked around to see if a weighted blanket is worth the cost.

“I definitely toss and turn less now thanks to the weight of the blanket,” my friend Christina told me. She’s also a writer, and has the same trouble I do turning off her thoughts when it’s time to sleep. “The weight of the blanket gives you something to focus on, so it sort of forces you to be mindful.”

My co-worker Steve also is a fan. “Since my wife travels a lot for work, it helps with that adjustment period of her weight being gone—it keeps things more even,” he told me, so that the feeling of her not being there is less physically noticeable.

Most weighted blanket guidelines recommend purchasing one that’s about 10% of your body weight (a 150-pound person would want a 15-pound blanket). But because my boyfriend often stays over, I wanted something heavy enough for both of us, so I opted for the 20-pounder.

Putting a weighted blanket to the test

As someone who's in fairly good shape, I find it embarrassing to admit how much of a struggle it was to get this 20-pound blanket evenly spread out across my bed. Just pulling it up required upper body strength. But once I was situated, it did feel extremely cozy.

So did it do the trick? After a few nights, I realized that I was falling asleep faster than I used to. At the end of my first week, I had finally gotten used to the weighted feeling and started to understand why people were so crazy about it. The pressure not only felt comforting, but gave me something to focus on rather than my racing thoughts (kind of like a meditation where you’re focusing on a sound—but instead, you’re focusing on a feeling).

My boyfriend took to it right away. He fell asleep almost instantly, though there was a tug of war involved to keep the blanket even over both of us. I also found that his movement throughout the night didn't disturb me as much with the weight of the blanket surrounding us.

For me, the pros definitely outweighed the cons—but I'd be dishonest if I left out how hot it can get under this blanket. I don't have control over the heat in my apartment, so on nights where it was really kicking, I woke up pretty much drenched in sweat. There may be other options out there that trap less heat, but since I chose one of the lightest weight options, I can’t imagine it would make much of a difference if it were a little bit lighter.

Should you try a weighted blanket?

If you can take the heat and have tried the rest of the sleep advice out there with no luck, I’d say go for it. While I’ll probably use my blanket less during the summer months, it has helped me sleep better than anything else I’ve tried so far. I’d consider that a win.

It may have worked for me because it helped me break the insomnia cycle. Dr. Rothenberg points out that if you suffer from persistent nighttime worry and anxiety, you need to help your brain reset. Whether you do that by reading a book, chatting with friends, watching a relaxing movie before bed, or introducing something like a weighted blanket to focus on, if it works for you, do it. "If you have something you regularly do as you fall asleep, then it becomes a habit that promotes sleep,” he says.

When to see a doctor

Some sleep issues can’t be treated with a blanket full of beads. Is your trouble sleeping intruding on your waking life? If so, it’s worth bringing the problem up to your primary care doctor to see whether or not you may benefit from seeing a sleep specialist, Dr. Rothenberg suggests. “It’s worth being proactive. The longer you let the problem go, the stronger the habit of not being able to sleep becomes," he explains.

Bottom line? In cooler months, I’m sticking with my weighted blanket because it’s helping my nighttime anxiety. But a weighted blanket may or may not help you get a great night’s sleep. So if you're looking to try one out, opt for one with a money-back guarantee, just in case.

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Published October 7th, 2019
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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